Are You Listening? How to Shine in Social Settings with ADHD

Expert advice for sharpening your social-interaction skills.

ADHD career advice for working on teams and listening. ADDitude Magazine

Before beginning an assignment at work, repeat what you’ve heard to make sure you understand correctly and have all the information.

Michele Novotni, Ph.D., psychologist in Wayne, Pennsylvania

People often mistake listening for a passive activity, but it’s actually an active process. You have to make a conscious effort to hear what someone’s saying, and by doing so, you make that person feel understood.

Good listening shows others that they’re important to you, so naturally, when your listening skills improve, so do your relationships.

While effective listening is a highly regarded social skill, it doesn’t come easily to people with ADHD, who have a hard time concentrating. Fortunately, it’s a skill you can learn. To become a good listener, you need to identify how you listen. The following listening (or not-listening) styles are common in many ADHD adults. If you recognize yourself in any of these scenarios, practice the accompanying strategies. With some effort, you can turn your listening habits around.

Non-stop talk

If you talk at the speed of light, feel compelled to voice every thought running through your overactive mind, and keep others from getting a word in, there’s no time for listening. This trait, found in fidgety adults with hyperactive ADHD, can be a serious detriment to relationships.

CHALLENGE: To take a breather.


  • Slow down. A breath between sentences will help you control the rush of words bursting out of your mouth and give others a chance to take in what you have to say.
  • Wait your turn. ADHD “talkers” have difficulty controlling the impulse to jump in and interrupt. Aside from being annoying to others, the behavior makes it hard to focus on what someone is saying. When someone’s speaking, concentrate on waiting until he ends his sentence before you jump in. If you have a question, ask permission before asking it. “Excuse me, may I ask a question?”
  • Talk about what you hear. When someone is talking to you, focus on finding a key point to comment on, rather than running off in all directions. This lets others know you’re listening, helps you follow along, and it opens the door to social acceptance.
  • See what you hear. To think about what someone is saying to you, visualize the story in your mind. Pretend that you’ll be quizzed, and that you’ll have to summarize the conversation. Could you do it?

No words for it

When someone else is talking, you don’t make a peep. While talking too much makes it difficult to listen effectively, not saying enough — common in folks with inattentive ADHD — can be equally problematic. Your mind may wander from what’s being said. By failing to participate in conversation, you are implying that you’re not listening, you don’t understand, or worse — you just don’t care.

CHALLENGE: To follow along.


  • Make a move. Use nonverbal cues, like nods and smiles, to signal that you’re tuned in.
  • Utter sounds. Say brief words or sounds, like “uh-huh,” or “go on,” to encourage others to continue.
  • Look for opportunities to comment politely. (Interrupting isn’t polite.) If you need more time to process your thoughts, ask the person who’s speaking to pause a moment while you decide what to say.

Let’s talk about me

Conversations work best as dialogues, not monologues, and if yours always revolves around your work, your life, and your relationships, you’re probably talking too much and not listening at all. When you’re engaged in a conversation, picture a seesaw in your mind, and remember the fun is in the up and down.

CHALLENGE: To let others participate in the conversation.


  • Ask about her. Make a point to see how others are doing before you start in about your own interests and concerns. Just as when you start a letter (“Dear Mom, How are you doing?”), it’s the polite thing to do. Also, this way you won’t have to remember to ask them later.
  • Listen for the me-me-me words. If you constantly say I, me, and my, try to use you and yours more often. (Avoid the cliché: “Enough about me. Now, what do you think about me?”)
  • Ask questions. Come up with some questions that would apply to most anyone you’re talking with: “What was the best thing you did today?” “How is your family doing?” “Did you have a good day at work?” Aside from allowing back-and-forth banter, this helps you focus on someone besides yourself.

In and out

A characteristic of both inattentive and hyperactive ADHD is an attention span that drifts from one thing to the next without any warning. This trait causes people to tune in and out during conversations, and miss important information. It’s especially detrimental at work, when the person talking is your boss.

CHALLENGE: To gather information from a conversation.


  • Say it again. Before beginning an assignment at work, repeat what you’ve heard to make sure you understand correctly and have all the information.
  • Take notes. If you’re in a meeting or conversation at work, write down the information you hear. The act of writing will help you listen.
  • Tape record conversations, if possible.
  • Echo conversations. Ask those you talk with regularly to have you repeat what they’ve said to you.

This article comes from the August/September 2004 issue of ADDitude. To read this issue of ADDitude in full, ORDER IT NOW!
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TAGS: ADHD Social Skills, Focus at Work,

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